COVID-19 Recovery Grant Helps Keep the Wheel Turning

The Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts has been the centerpiece of entertainment and performing arts education in Kosciusko County for more than 60 years, but 2020 is sure to go down in the history books as one of the theater’s most challenging years on record.

Performing arts organizations across the world have faced unprecedented shutdowns since COVID-19 restrictions began to go into effect last Spring, and the struggles faced by Wagon Wheel Executive Director Jay Michaels and his team were no exception. “2020 was nothing but pivoting,” he said. “I did more pivoting in the last year than I ever did playing basketball!”

Wagon Wheel Junior performers dazzle on stage.

But despite the obstacles and ever-changing advice, the Wagon Wheel has done more than just survive the pandemic. With a little creativity, a dash of ingenuity, and an extra helping of flexibility, the Wagon Wheel is positioning itself to thrive once again.

The cancellation of all indoor theater events and concerts during the past year has resulted in a major shortfall in operating revenue. Michaels and the team have worked hard to recover some of the financial losses through various grants and government relief programs, including a COVID-19 Recovery Grant from Kosciusko County Community Foundation.

According to Donor Relations Director Elisa Wise, an increase in private donations and corporate sponsorships has also allowed the Wagon Wheel to maintain the employment of its seven full time staff members.

“We made great progress with grants and donations made at the end of 2020, but now we are faced with a greater challenge of raising the money we need to produce the summer season and the upcoming concerts for 2021,” said Wise. “With limited ticket sale opportunities, due to all of the shows having been on sale for two years, there isn’t enough revenue possible from tickets left to cover the cost of the upcoming expenses. That is why donations have become so important this year.”

But Michaels believes that good news is just around the corner for the theater, as COVID-19 numbers continue to fall across the state. Once the current restrictions are eased, and the Wagon Wheel can operate at 50% or greater, it will be possible to resume concerts and the long-awaited Summer Theater Series.

“I think people are hungry for live entertainment,” said Michaels. “I just hope we can get back to live performances soon and do it safely.”

As residents of Kosciusko County know, Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts is so much more than an entertainment venue. An important part of the Wagon Wheel’s mission is to provide educational opportunities through performing arts. Some of the ways this is achieved is through youth education, Wagon Wheel Junior youth theater programs, The Young Artist Competition, and Christmas field trips.

Another aspect of the Wagon Wheel’s mission is to contribute to the county’s economic growth through tourism. Currently Wagon Wheel is one of the top tourist draws to Kosciusko County, with its shows bringing valuable business to area hotels, restaurants, and shops.

One silver lining of the COVID-19 disruptions has been a renewed focus on performing arts education at the Wagon Wheel. With more staff resources available to plan and manage classes, their summer outdoor drama workshops were a sell-out success.

In addition, the newly acquired Wagon Wheel Education Center, located adjacent to the theater, is now home to numerous drama classes, along with newly added vocal and piano lessons. Musical theater dance classes might even be in the Wagon Wheel’s future offerings, according to Michaels.

The Cast of the upcoming ‘The Odd Couple – Female Version’

Michaels says that the Wagon Wheel Board has been fantastic to work with despite the challenges of the past year, helping him and his team navigate the ‘weird waters’ they found themselves in. He also credits the community for showing support during the difficult year. “We have really felt the community’s support, but in order to achieve our goals we need to reach even more people and gain even more support,” he said.

The Wagon Wheel Board is currently planning a major giving campaign with a goal of $750,000. It’s an ambitious target, but Michaels points out that this figure includes state and local grants, corporate donations and sponsorships, along with individual donations.

The COVID-19 Recovery Grant from the Community Foundation helped to offset some of the revenue lost due to COVID-19. The Community Foundation also supports the Wagon Wheel through annual distributions from endowment funds and various program-based grants. Other recent funding that has kept performing arts alive in our county has come from The Zimmer Biomet Foundation and the Indiana Arts Commission. Additionally, the Wagon Wheel’s End-of-Year Giving Campaign in 2020 raised more than $200,000 from generous supporters.

If all goes well, live performances will resume in March with Wagon Wheel Community Theater’s performance of The Odd Couple – Female Version, and Wagon Wheel Junior’s performance of Pirates of the Amazon.

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the 2021 season, but Michaels and the Wagon Wheel team will continue to pivot and adapt in order to bring live performance safely to our community.

The easiest way to support the Wagon Wheel is to purchase tickets at . Direct donations are also important for keeping the organization running, and making a donation online  is the simplest and quickest way to help.

Kosciusko County Community Foundation provides annual support through the Wagon Wheel Theater Endowment Fund. If you would like to support this fund click HERE.